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10 Things I Learned from Backpacking Around Asia

Photo credit: flawedlogic (flickr)

Cambodian sunset

In 2008 I sold or gave away all my worldly possessions, packed up what remained and left the country with a round-the-world ticket in hand, never to return. Those months I spent travelling created some of the most memorable experiences of my life and I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I’d done it years ago instead of following the set route of university followed by 9-5 career.

The truth is you can learn a lot from travelling. These days a college education is expensive and not always necessary. Yes, if you want to be a doctor, you need to study, but some of the most successful people I know never went to university or started but never finished their course.

Instead of following the crowd, stop and think what you really want from life and how you can get there. It may very well be a possibility that you can gain more from letting the world be your teacher than putting down thousands of dollars to enrol in a college course you’re not 100% committed to.

The lessons learned on the road are often wide and varied. Here are a few little things I discovered while travelling around Asia:

1. Experiences are worth more than possessions

My trekking guide in Vietnam

My trekking guide in Vietnam

I spent years trading my hard earned cash for stuff – clothes, magazines, electronics, gadgets and other random junk. After getting rid of it and living out of the contents of my backpack for over a year, I didn’t miss it. In fact over 4 years later, most of what I did leave behind (you know – the things I really really couldn’t part with) remain in their boxes, completely forgotten.

Free yourself of your possessions and you’ll realise how you never really needed them in the first place. Instead use your income to fund travel, new experiences and learning opportunities. You won’t regret it.

2. You don’t need as much money as you think you do

You’ll be surprised at how little money you need to sustain the backpacking lifestyle, particularly if you’re travelling in cheap countries and staying in budget accommodation. Even maintaining a comfortable lifestyle living in a nice apartment, eating out and socialising several times a week will cost much less than it would do in the US or Europe.

If you have a regular income such as rental income from a property you may even be able to live comfortably off the profits without needing to ever work again. Live in a tropical paradise on a modest income or be a wage slave until you’re in your 60s? It shouldn’t be a difficult choice!

3. The world is safer than you think

Motorbikes in Vietnam

Motorbikes in Vietnam

Many people are put off from visiting particular countries or travelling solo because they’ve been warned about how dangerous it is. While there are some areas of the world that are more hazardous than others, in most cases you’ll find that you’re more likely to be a victim of serious crime in your home country than when you’re travelling.

Yes, pickpocketing, scams, and road accidents are rife in many countries but you can avoid these pitfalls by using a bit of common sense. Don’t be put off travel because you think it’s a dangerous activity.

4. Making friends is easy

I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few pre-trip nerves about taking on the world solo. The fact is, you don’t need to be the life of the party in order to make friends when you’re travelling. You’ll find that in most cases people will talk to you and as long as you don’t hide in your room for 24 hours a day, it’s easy to meet people on the road.

The easiest way to make sure of making friends is to stay in budget accommodation and then make an effort to spend time in the common areas. Even if you don’t try to initiate conversation, it won’t be long before someone approaches you. Travellers are friendly people!

5. Your qualifications and job title mean nothing

Cambodian children

Cambodian children

Nobody is interested in your academic or career achievements when you’re travelling. It may eventually come up in conversation but in general you’ll find other people are more interested in where you’ve been, where you’re going and how long you’ve been travelling for.

When you’re travelling, everyone you meet is at the same level and you’ll soon realise that it’s your personal qualities and real skills that matter, not certificates or letters after your name.

6. People are generally good

In general, once you start exploring the world, you’ll find that the human race is pretty much amazing. In my travels I’ve found that if I have a problem, people will go out of their way to help me. I accidentally left a large sum of money in a hostel room, which was returned to me without any missing. Taxi drivers, shop keepers and waitresses have all waived me away when I was a few coins short or didn’t have any change, even though their monthly salary is probably pitiful to my western eyes.

Regardless of race, religion, culture or language, most people don’t want to take advantage of you or harm you in some way, regardless of what you’ve been led to believe to the contrary.

7. Eating street food won’t kill you

Cambodian deep fried tarantulas - not your regular street food!

Cambodian deep fried tarantulas – not your regular street food!

During all my travels, I only got food poisoning once – eating pad thai at a tourist restaurant in Bangkok. Usually local food is fresh, healthy and once your stomach has accustomed to the spices, it won’t cause you any problems. Eat at the places that are busiest with locals – they won’t buy food that makes them sick.

I stayed healthy in India by being vegetarian and this is a great tip for avoiding dodgy meals – it’s usually meat that causes food poisoning. Also watch out for salads and fruit that may have been washed in unclean water. Cooked vegetables and fruit you can peel is pretty much always safe.

8. You don’t need to buy souvenirs

Luang Prabang night market

Luang Prabang night market

As I knew I’d be travelling for a long time and any extra weight would have to be carried on my back, I simply didn’t buy anything during my travels except a couple of small bracelets. Yes there are amazing textiles, jewellery, clothing and home wares at amazing prices to be found in India, Thailand, Vietnam and other countries. Do I regret not buying them? No.

Remember, stuff is just stuff. You don’t need a wooden ornament or an embroidered table runner to remind you of your travels – the memories are all in your head and probably the several thousand photographs you took.

9. The Internet isn’t a life necessity

Yes, it’s a nice-to-have and undeniably useful in terms of staying in touch with your family and friend back home, researching future destinations and working on the road. But being disconnected for a few days won’t kill you and sometimes it’s nice to read a book instead of your blog reader.

Most of the places I travelled to had Internet access but there were several times when I was forced to unplug for at least a few days – trekking in Nepal for example. I’m a typical internet user in that I fear withdrawal symptoms if my net connection is cut for a few hours but in fact it’s quite refreshing to be forced to unplug for a few days. Try it!

10. Doing nothing is a valid activity

Malaysian beach

Malaysian beach

It’s all to easy to get caught up in ‘sightseeing’ and ticking things off your must-see list but touring all the destinations in your guidebook can quickly become exhausting and leave you feeling jaded with travel.

There’s no need to visit all the typical tourist destinations in the country you’re visiting and let’s face it – usually once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all. One of the most enjoyable parts of my trip was a week I spent in Luang Prabang, Laos doing absolutely nothing but reading, eating and lounging around watching the Mekong river float by. Bliss!

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